Charlie Stross ponders the future of cars

Paul Raven @ 10-11-2010

If you’re bored of my bootstrap amateur futurism (I suppose one can have too much of a good thing, AMIRITES?), pop over to Charlie Stross’ blog and watch a professional at work as he considers the future of personal transport:

While the basic automobile is a mature technology, autonomous vehicles — specifically, self-driving cars — are not. However, they’re clearly coming along by leaps and bounds. And unlike human drivers, computers don’t generally suffer from lapses of attention, have heart attacks at the wheel, drive home from the pub after a couple of pints too many, or plough into cyclists while texting their girlfriends.

Shortly after (not if, but when) we see autopilots become standard equipment in cars, we can expect to see insurance premiums start to rise sharply for people who insist on driving themselves around on the public highways — especially for third-party insurance.

(Remember, it’s not about you: it’s about the guy in the pick-up behind you who’s had six pints of beer, or the gal in the SUV bearing down on the pedestrian crossing who’s paying more attention to the friend she’s chatting to than the kids crossing the road. You could be that guy or that gal; or you could be scrupulously attentive the whole time. Your insurance company’s computer can’t tell until you have an accident … that’s the problem with Baye’s Theorem.)

Longer term (I suspect a generation after that point) we’ll begin to see pressure to ban humans from driving on the public roads. By this point, the cost of electronics required to upgrade a vehicle to self-driving capability will have fallen so much that it’s ubiquitous, even in the developing world.

The mark of good futurism, for me at least, is when you read or hear it and think “well, yeah, of course; obvious, isn’t it?” The cynical rejoinder to that would be to say that repeating the obvious is easy work… to which I’d respond that either a) I’m an idiot or b) it’s not as easy as the experts make it look. (I’m rooting for option B there, obviously.)

That said, the gaping hole in Charlie’s piece is the absence of public transport as an influential factor; maybe I’m just being too idealist (or naive), but I find it hard to envisage a future a century hence where private ownership of long-distance vehicles is anywhere near as ubiquitous as it is now. Shared pools thereof, perhaps… but I figure that a radical rethink of transport infrastructure – not to mention the necessity of long-distance personal travel – is pretty inevitable, whether caused by rational politics (not looking likely) or the rocks and hard places of post-Peak Oil economics (looking pretty inevitable).

After all, the Greatest Nation in the World™ can’t afford to maintain its roads and highways at the moment; cars will be little use with nothing to drive ’em on. Unless the highways seceded, of course…

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One Response to “Charlie Stross ponders the future of cars”

  1. jt says:

    I don’t understand your point about public transportation. Charles addresses public transportation to an extent: “Poor folks won’t have their own car, they’ll just have fractional reserve part-ownership of a vehicle — after all, even at peak rush hour, 95% of the UK vehicle fleet is parked up; we don’t need one car per person, we just need available wheels whenever we want to go somewhere.”

    Besides, if all the vehicles are running on autopilot, it becomes much easier for public transportation to make sense—buses will be on time 100% of the time and taxis will be enormously easy to use.